In its primitive state an apophthegma is a terse reply or statement made by an elderly monk to a young candidate whom he is instructing in the ways and principles of the monastic life. The word is based on the Greek ἀποφθέγγομαι—I speak my mind plainly, I make a statement—and the axiomatic type of counseling, whether spontaneous or requested, could develop into a short dialogue, a parable in words or actions, or more rarely, into the discussion of a Scripture passage. Eventually collections of such axioms were called in monastic circles "The Sayings of the Fathers."
Such an utterance was looked upon as inspired, a charism, and was treasured by the recipient as a gift from heaven. In terse and vivid terms, without rhetorical development or philosophical grounding, it set forth some principle of the spiritual life or its application from the elementary repelling of vice to the highest type of contemplation.
The second stage of the apophthegma came when the saying was repeated by the monks and commented upon. The point at issue was noted and the name of the author preserved as the saying became common property.
Eventually some literate monk wrote these statements down, and they became material for the collections of later days.
The apophthegmata of the fathers first appeared at the beginning of the 4th century among the monks and solitaries of Egypt, seemingly in Nitria, the Cellia, and especially in the Scetis Valley. The gift belonged mainly to the unlettered Copts, and it was in their language that the oral tradition was active. The written recording was done for the most part in Greek by educated Hellenes from the Greek settlements in Egypt. Yet much of the vigor of the popular tongue was kept in the Greek translations, and the form of life presented is the semianchoritic. After the mid-5th century, with the spread of education and monastic rules, the authentic type of apophthegmata disappeared, although new forms of expression came under this name: excerpts from the lives of the saints and from homilies, miracle stories, and so on.
The apophthegmata patrum are of importance for understanding the beginnings of monastic life and the development of religious centers. In the opinion of W. Bousset, they can be compared to the primitive life of St. pachomius and his rule as a source for the history of Christian piety.
Bibliography: f. cavallera, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 1:766–770. w. bousset, Apophthegmata: Studien zur Geschichte des ältesten Mönchtums, ed. t. hermann and g. krÜger (Tübingen 1923); j. c. guy, Recherches sur la tradition grecque des Apophthegmata Patrum (Brussels 1962). j. quasten, Patrology, 3 v. (Westminster, Md. 1950–53) 3:187–189.
[a. c. wand]